SALT LAKE CITY — There's an argument that anything can be made into a sales opportunity, and that includes International Women's Day, celebrated every year on March 8.
A slew of companies as diverse as Christian Dior, DC Comics, Coca-Cola, Google and Lamborghini took to Twitter on International Women's Day to highlight the work women have contributed to their companies or to celebrate women in general. While some see their efforts as well-intentioned, others have argued that these brands are pandering to women in an attempt to boost sales.
Ashley Alese Edwards, a senior editor at Refinery29, a publication geared toward women, tweeted Friday: "For #InternationalWomensDay I kindly ask for brands to stop sending me pitches about International Women's Day. Making your product pink and slapping an 'EMPOWER' sticker on it means nothing to me. Thank u, next."
The conversation is reminiscent of the question of whether brands should attempt to support social movements or incorporate the messaging, ideas or imagery of those movements into their promotional campaigns — a phenomenon known as "brand activism."
The overall consensus is that companies need to engage in brand activism in order to stay relevant to consumers.
"The days of companies being able to safely sit out the big social and political issues of the day are no more," Peter Horst, the founder of CMO Inc., a marketing strategy consultancy, wrote in Forbes. "Silence can be viewed as complicity, and it can allow others to seize control of the narrative and use your brand as leverage in whatever their agenda might be."
According to a 2017 study from Cone Communications, 78 percent of Americans want companies to address important social justice issues. In addition, 87 percent are more likely to buy a product from a company if it's vocal about an issue they care about, while 76 percent said they wouldn't give a company their business if it took a stance opposed to theirs. A company's commitment to social justice issues is also particularly attractive to millennial customers and employees — 70 percent of millennials are willing to pay more for a product if it has an effect on issues that matter to them.
However, brand activism is most successful when companies sincerely believe in the issues they are advocating for — and when the issue that is being highlighted fits in with the brand's overall message, experts say.
"You don't want your business to end up in the news like KFC did with its breast cancer campaign, a cause at odds with the company's product," Sara Davis, executive director of strategy at Osmond Marketing, wrote in Forbes.
For Joe Berkowitz of FastCompany, companies have the right to sincerely tweet about International Women's Day if they fall into one of the following categories:
"If your brand identity is geared toward women in an empowering way already, like ESPN’s women’s vertical, ESPNW, then by all means: Just do it. If you’ve got a cool message that’s consistent with your online presence, like Haymarket Books, clearly you’ve read the room. And if you’re 'Peanuts' or 'Sesame Street,' and have woven your way into women’s hearts from a young age for many, many decades, you have a lifetime pass for this sort of thing," Berkowitz writes.
Berkowitz pointed out that other companies' tweets about International Women's Day fall flat because they don't have an immediate connection to the company's mission or product.
Berkowitz also criticized the video game industry, which has traditionally been less inclusive of women and has often sexualized women's bodies, for tweeting about International Women's Day.
Other companies got on board with International Women's Day messaging, despite lacking a clear connection to women's empowerment.
Other companies, like McDonald's, have taken a creative approach to International Women's Day, flipping the "M" sign upside-down into a "W" to celebrate women.
Jessica Powell, the former head of communications for Google, challenged the meaning of actions or campaigns like McDonald's that only last for a day and don't necessarily indicate a commitment to lasting change or gender equality.
"Of course, as fun as all this Women's Day stuff is, we'll be flipping our logo back to normal tomorrow," Powell wrote in a New York Times opinion column. "We love women, but the M is just a bit more powerful and dynamic, don't you think?"